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Prepare to duel

For Manning, it's simply a choice of picking his weapon

INDIANAPOLIS -- He wanted to shut off the TV and say goodnight. That's what the game plan called for, and even Peyton Manning sometimes lives according to the script.

But when all your life is an audible, as it is virtually every second that Manning is on the football field, even a self-imposed curfew the night before a playoff game has a way of being rendered the play not taken. So as last Saturday grew later, and Sunday's kickoff between the Colts and Broncos drew closer, Manning sat on his sofa and tossed a perfect aerial -- the curfew landing right in the trash can. Yet another successful audible.

On the TV, the Jets and Chargers were headed to overtime in San Diego, and some 2,100 miles to the northeast, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback refused to let them go without him. He had to watch, in part because he is a man addicted to the process of a game playing out, even if only to fantasize the twists and turns he would splice into it, and in part because he likes to sit there like the rest of the American sporting public and watch till he drops.

"I can do both," Manning said early last week when asked if he can separate the NFL player -- the one with the most TD passes (49) in a season -- from the NFL fan. "I enjoy watching games. I enjoy and appreciate watching other people play. When the San Diego Chargers play, I can sit there and watch a LaDainian Tomlinson run, and appreciate his talents and abilities."

But at the same time, added the 28-year-old Manning, he can drift into the what-if-it-were-me? reverie that strikes the rest of the couch potatoes in the watching world. As he pondered just such a scenario the other day, he conjured up a fourth-and-5 situation, on the last play of a game, with the added potential of the play as called on the sideline never making it to the huddle.

Sitting nearby as Manning factored all this, Colts coach Tony Dungy rolled his eyes and broke into a light laugh, conveying a sense of sarcasm, as if Manning more than once in the past contended that he switched to his own play because of a breakdown in sideline-to-huddle communication. For Dungy, the make-believe was cutting very close to the bone.

"So you sort of put yourself in that situation," said an animated Manning, chuckling as he interpreted the read on Dungy's face, "and you ask, `What would I do here, or what would [Colts offensive coordinator] Tom Moore call here?' You kind of play that game. I think it helps. That's why I wanted to stay up and watch the Chargers and Jets. Coach Dungy tells us to watch these games . . . watch the teams that make the key plays in the fourth quarter . . . watch the key mistake in the third quarter that's going to sway the game. I watch and I try to learn from it."

Motivated to win
The watching, the learning, the constant reads and the corresponding improvisations (even if only imagined). It's all part of the Manning way, which now has him pointed toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The question is, when he gets to Canton, Ohio, will he arrive with a Super Bowl ring, even if it takes a John Elway lifetime? Or will it mirror Dan Marino's career, in which he will have shattered every passing record in the book, but never match the numbers with the one trophy that means everything in the game?

All of that, Manning said last week, is to be answered at another time.

"People ask me how I want to be remembered and defined," he said. "To me, that's something you ask a player in his 15th or 16th year, when he's thinking about retiring, I guess. But for me, here I am in my seventh year, we're in the playoffs, we have a game in New England -- I'm really not looking for a definition of my entire career right now.

"After I retire, whatever the definition of my career, it'll be whatever it turns out to be. But right now, I'm just trying to win football games."

Right now, the winning is very much a part of the Manning way, too. The Broncos found that out last Sunday when Manning, showing little sign of TV lag from the Jets-Chargers matchup, led the Colts to seven scoring drives on 10 possessions in a 49-24 shellacking. Now they face the Patriots for a second time in as many postseasons, looking for a far different outcome than the 24-14 loss they sustained at Foxborough last January in the AFC Championship game. Manning fired four TD passes Sunday vs. the Broncos, matching the number of interceptions he fired in Foxborough last Jan. 18.

The key difference this time around for the Colts, beyond the sheer experience factor that comes with a third consecutive playoff season, is that Manning's array of receivers is broader than it was last January when he connected 23 times with seven pass catchers.

There were times this year, last Sunday one of them, when it seemed he had seven eligible receivers on the same play. Manning & Co. were so sharp against the Broncos that premier receiver Marvin Harrison had yet to have a ball thrown his way by the time Colts were boasting a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter. So many eager hands, one football.

"You just have to know your role, your situation," said tight end Dallas Clark, who snared a half-dozen Manning tosses Sunday, good for 112 yards and one TD. "And just know that your time is going to come in this offense. That's the greatest thing about this offense. That's why we're so good. [Manning] does such a great job of spreading the ball around."

Familiar challenge
If that reads much like what the Colts were saying last January, then welcome to the Deja Vu Bowl. No matter how varied, improved, and confident the Colts may be, a key component that hasn't changed is that Patriots coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have a way of concocting defensive strategies to descramble the Manning descrambler. Whatever he can do, it just seems that Belichick and Crennel can make the New England defense do better.

With that as the psychological backdrop to tomorrow's game, Manning not only is surrounded by a growing legacy issue (what will his career add up to in the end?), but also the question of whether he can sneak his game by 11 defenders and two sideline sages.

"Obviously, I can't argue with what's happened in the past," said Manning, whose Colts also lost their 2004 season opener in Foxborough. "But I really don't dwell on it a whole lot. There's really not much point in talking about last year's game, or this season's game, or years past. But there's no question that New England has kind of been the dominant team of the past three years and they're doing it again this year."

Manning last March became the highest-paid NFL player when he signed a seven-year, $98 million contract extension that included a record-$34.5 million signing bonus. Whatever happens tomorrow, or the remainder of this month, or the next six years, he will be smack in the middle of everything that is Indianapolis Colts football. To say that he has turned into everything the Colts hoped for when they made him the No. 1 pick in the '98 draft would be to overestimate their wishes and underestimate his accomplishments.

"When you think about what goes on in athletics today," said Colts president Bill Polian, on hand at a news conference Monday when the Associated Press named Manning the NFL MVP for a second straight year, "and when you think about some of the things that have happened in recent years and a lot of the criticism that athletes get, you don't think about Peyton Manning. When you think about everything that's good about athletics . . . you think about Peyton Manning."

Or, said another way, everybody loves Peyton. And why not? For all the fame and fortune that have come his way, he remains refreshingly humble, something not everyone does in what is arguably the most humbling sport of all.

At the same time, he is the game's ultimate showman, especially when switching from one play to another with the clock counting down, racing from his shotgun position to change a play at scrimmage, and scurrying back to accept the snap. The Colts' offense is full of bells and whistles, and Manning works it as effortlessly as Bob Dylan simultaneously works guitar and harmonica.

"With Peyton, there is always something that surprises," said third-year Colts running back James Mungro. "There is always something different about Peyton. He doesn't do the same things over again. There is some kind of loophole in the whole logistics of it, and it's just fun to be part of the whole thing."

Added rookie offensive lineman Ryan Lilja, "Everyone knows he's the man. He's the leader of this group -- and everyone pretty much follows."

The QB knows best
Where it all goes, and where he takes them, no one knows. In part, that's because, despite everything said and read, it's not all about Manning. For the ultimate proof, Google the following: Marino, Dolphins, Super Bowls.

Without Dungy's arrival here prior to the '02 season, and without his vision and mission statement about upgrading the defense, much of Manning's greatness might never have been truly showcased. Appreciated, yes. But showcased, no. With Dungy came the decision to select the pass-rushing Dwight Freeney as the No. 1 building block on defense, and the Colts over the past three seasons have built increasing respectability into the other side of the ball. The fast-charging Freeney has been most responsible for that renaissance, his speed off the snap and pursuit of everyone in the opposition's backfield second to none.

About the only thing as fast as Freeney's feet is the speed at which Manning can fast-forward the Colt offense. At its best, as it was Sunday, the Indy offense shreds defenses with Manning's accurate array of short, mid-range, and long passes. There is also the underlying threat of premier running back Edgerrin James popping up from beneath the aerial show and barreling downfield with something as mundane -- can you stand it? -- as a handoff (see: boiled potato with sprig of parsley on the Colts' offensive menu).

"The first year, I don't want to think about it," said Mungro, recalling the daunting task three years ago when he first opened the gridiron trigonometry entitled, "Colts Offense." "It was mind-boggling at first, and then when you get it down, they change it! You never know what it's going to be -- a pass, a run play -- until Peyton decides what's best for us."

About the only constant is the surprise factor.

"Most of the time you're out there thinking, `Why's he calling this?' " said Clark, who slipped in under coverage repeatedly on Sunday as Manning's surprise factor du jour in the dismantling of the Broncos. "Then you see the whole thing unfold and then you understand what it's about -- he just sees a lot more than you do. On Sundays, he just executes and puts everything into the game, and that makes it easier on everyone around him."

Ultimately, that could be his legacy. Peyton Manning, master of the complicated, with the Big Easy touch.

"I'm just trying to win football games," said Manning. "I know people are going to make comparisons, but I really can't get into that because there is too much to think about and I have so much on my plate every single week -- trying to make audibles and trying to get guys in the right position. Then you throw in the New England Patriots, arguably the best defense in the league. There's plenty to think about besides who you're being compared to." 

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